We understand everything in a context. The problem is not that we do this, but that it is so often a context that we are unconscious of having. Instead of seeing it for what it is, we generally think of it as the “neutral” or “one true” framework for understanding something.
This has been very apparent in online discussions of Gnosticism, yet it is a difficult concept to get across. What follows are the standard approaches to Gnosticism looked at from the contexts through which they approach Gnostic texts. These patterns are typical and as such risk being stereotypical.
The top three are the top three approaches that seem to be favored by those online who self-identify as Gnostics (with connections to the historical tradition). The contemporary approach is largely Protestant in form: the individual approaches the texts by themselves, through their understanding of religion from the current religious and cultural contexts. The most common of these within this largely Protestant approach are Protestant in nature. This leads to a type of “Sola Scriptura Gnostica” approach, a severe limiting of meaning to scriptures identified as Gnostic understood through standard theological reasoning.
The idiosyncratic approach can lead to wild eclecticism and to orthodoxies of one. We will be looking at this in different contexts to show the difference between idiosyncratically approaching Gnosticism and personally approaching Gnosticism.
The Polemical approach, when it isn't simply name-calling, is a repeat of ancient arguments that were based upon ancient propaganda only slightly modified, if at all, for contemporary use.
The academic approach also includes an understanding of religion from the current religious and cultural contexts. These are presented as models and definitions of religion that are based upon Protestant understandings of Religion. This is the standard “beliefs & practices” model of religion, and the definitions of religion as involving “supernatural beings.”
The Depth Psychological approach was the first that recognized Gnosticism beyond the beliefs & practices model. Seeing the Gnostic texts not as abstract theological treatises or as guides to winning a salvation game. The Depth Psychological approach grounds Gnosticism within the human being, not just human ideas.
So, what's a Gnostic to do? The approach I am familiar with, and originally assumed other Gnostics used, combines the elements of the Depth Psychological and Academic approaches. It rejects the model of religion as beliefs and practices, or as an external or abstract thing. But as something with real inner Psycho-spiritual transformative effects on human beings. This gives us more than a few fragmentary texts understood from a Protestant perspective: a few ideas that are identifiable as “Gnostic” from the texts, understood in a modern religious context. But rather, a rich tradition of Gnosis in which we can use the ancient Gnostic texts as guides, mirrors, and community.